This scene took place a few weeks ago on the Iran-Iraq border: Following a now-classic scenario, Iranian officials were shepherding a group of reluctant Western correspondents to the front of the combat lines to show them how close to the Iraqi city of Basra Iranian fighters were. One uneasy American correspondent, his voice almost drowned out by the rumbling of the cannonade, yelled: ``Every time I arrive in this country I swear to myself that I won't risk my life for the sake of their War Propaganda Organization. But I always end up going where they want me to go.''
Upon hearing this a few days later, a Tehran-based Western diplomat smiled. ``Before entering any negotiation with the Islamic Republic, all foreign governments' leaders should think of this anecdote,'' he said.
``Iranians are shrewd negotiators and are excellent at getting their interlocutors to do what they want. When going to a negotiation table, the [Iranian] leaders' key is always to get as much as you can and, if possible, without making any concessions.''
In an effort to procure badly needed military supplies, Iranian officials have been driven by two factors to new heights of negotiating prowess: their view that Iran stands isolated, with the international community against it, and their deep commitment to their revolution.
Since Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980, Iranian leaders have found loopholes in various countries' regulations and have succeeded in buying all kinds of weapons. While Iranian businessmen negotiate contracts with armament firms, their diplomats persuade governments to turn a blind eye to those deals.
``In return for vague promises they convinced even their sworn enemies to sell weapons to them. And this without making a single concession,'' a senior European diplomat here says admiringly. ``On the very first day of the war Imam Khomeini said his country would punish Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. [And] they have stuck to this line. This shows that the international community has failed to use arms [embargoes] as leverage to curb the Iranians' militancy.''
Western businessmen and commercial attach'es in Tehran say the Iranians have also benefited from the world economic recession that has severely hit armament industries. Several European and American arms manufacturers are in a difficult financial position, these business people say, and are eager to deal with customers capable of paying cash - something the Iranians always do.
A good example of this is the French company Luchaire, which, in spite of a French embargo, sold several cargoes of shells to Iran in 1985. At the time of the sale, Luchaire was reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy. European financial analysts say the company owes its survival partly to this contract, for which the Iranians were grossly overcharged.
On the other end, many currency-short third-world nations have encouraged their arms dealers to be more active on the international market, particularly in the Persian Gulf region. This is the case with several Latin American states and China which, despite denials, sells weapons to Iran. [Iran's recent installation of Chinese-made missiles near the Gulf entrance is worrying the US and Gulf states.]
Journalists and diplomats familiar with Iran say this ability to secure concessions stems from Iran's cultural and political traditions. The centuries-old Persian tradition puts great emphasis on the art of negotiation and persuasion. From an early age, Iranian children are taught by parents how to win acceptance for their opinions - through a mixture of carefully worded rhetoric and all kinds of moral or even physical pressures.
One such stratagem consists in expressing, in public, views that are contrary to what one holds with the aim of misleading one's audience.
A retired European ambassador, who spent several years in Iran under the Shah's rule, says: ``Then we were not aware of this reality because the Shah was our ally and we had no conflictive relation with him. Also, the Shah had sprayed a veneer of Western culture on his country's society.''
Western observers also say that successive Iranian governments have successfully used their country's strategic location as a bargaining chip. Iranian leaders have been known to try convincing the other side that some day they may either tilt West or toward the East bloc.
In discussions with the Soviet Union, sources say, Iranian officials profess their determination to fight against ``US imperialism''; when dealing with China, they depict Iran as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism in the Persian Gulf. To West Europeans, they say Iran is a lucrative future market for industrial goods.
``The miracle,'' jokes a European diplomat, ``is that everyone ends up believing them.''
Claude van England writes on Iran from his base in Brussels.